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Are Washington Elites Really Pushing Us Into a War?

In a post for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argues that the insularity of Washington commentators has made a war with Syria increasingly likely, or perhaps inevitable. The premise of Friedersdorf's piece is that the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to intervention in Syria (only 1/4 people favor action even if Assad's regime is proven to have used chemical weapons), and there is no legislative majority in favor of war ("a declaration of war against Syria would almost certainly fail in Congress"). Why then, he asks, is the media writing stories about "pressure on the Obama administration to intervene" militarily? He quotes a CBS News story which began by noting the "new pressure" faced by the administration, but didn't say who the pressure was coming from. The CBS story is indeed pretty thin, and Friedersdorf is no doubt right that there is a certain bias towards hawkishness in various press coverage of American military action (or inaction). But Friedersdorf's conception of Washington is simplistic in the extreme, and does not offer an understanding of the power held by the city's elite.

For starters, and unacknowledged by Friedersdorf, Syrian atrocities have been going on for years now. The death toll makes the entire conflict a catastrophe of immense proportions. The war is occurring in what is sometimes called a "crucial region" of the world, and the effects of Assad's mania have been felt by nearly all of his neighbors. The refugee problems are enormous and depressing. And yet, here we are, several years after it all began, and during that time (until now) there has been...absolutely no serious discussion of American military engagement! John McCain and others have been yelling at the top of their lungs to no effect. The issue occasionally made the front page of serious newspapers, but it was not a huge topic of conversation on cable television or even at the cocktail parties where Washington elites bow down before defense contractors. 

Now, however, not only has the scale of the calamity continued to grow, but President Obama (who I think qualifies as a member of the Washington elite) made an off-the-cuff statement about chemical weapons and "red lines." Thus, after the apparent use of these weapons earlier this month, the president's was put in a difficult position of his own making. In essence, this pressure that Friedersdorf finds so nefarious is largely the result of a statement by the one man who, more than anyone else, has opposed American intervention! Surely Friedersdorf understands that presidents care about their publicly made promises regarding international affairs. (He acknowledges at the end of the piece that there is also pressure coming from foreign governments).

Meanwhile, Friedersdorf seems very confused about how to read public opinion polls. He writes: 

The president is on the cusp of launching a war of choice that the people don't want, and yet that isn't treated as problematic or even framed as a countervailing pressure against intervention! The press doesn't suggest that Obama would lose credibility by acting against the people's will, because he won't lose any credibility in "This Town," and opinions within it are unconsciously treated as if they are the ones that really matter, even when the subject is war.

Friedersdorf is awfully attached to the supposed moral credibility of public opinion. But anyway, yes, most people oppose war. Yet that doesn't mean there is major "pressure" on the president to stay out of war. It's an issue people do not spend time thinking about, and therefore the percent of people opposing it (by the way, watch that number change once the miissiles get fired) is probably not a huge worry to the White House. The same goes for the executive branch and Congress. I can't believe the Obamaites are quaking in their boots over an anti-Syria-war Congressional coalition ruining the president's other legislative plans. The whole issue has nothing to do with "This Town" and everything to do with a public that, most likely, couldn't care less. This is not a good thing for democracy, surely, but it's also a much better explanation of Obama's likely upcoming move than Friedersdorf's analysis of Washington insularity. 

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.

Image via Shutterstock.